U.S. proxy rebel groups in northwestern Syria have begun fighting each other as well as forces of the Damascus regime, further complicating United Nations efforts to halt the fighting, ease the refugee crisis and bring relief to starving civilians, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.
"We want them to stop fighting each other" and return to battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Army Col. Steve Warren said of the recent conflict between Kurdish militias backed by the U.S. and other so-called "moderate" Syrian opposition groups that also receive U.S. support.
However, Warren acknowledged that the U.S. has little influence over the groups caught up in the push northward by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under cover of a relentless Russian bombing campaign.
"Yes, we are concerned" that the fighting between the groups had taken the focus off the defeat of ISIS but "there's a civil war going on right now. Civil wars have confusion and that's what we see playing out here," said Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, which coordinates the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
"The purpose of the train and equip mission is to fight ISIL," Warren said, using another acronym for ISIS, but "at the end of the day we're not there on the ground to force people to do anything."
The shifting alliances of the civil war that form and reform with the support of outside actors have posed a major challenge for Steffan de Mistura, the veteran diplomat and U.N. special envoy for Syria, who won agreement last week from 17 nations, including the U.S., Iran and Russia, for a "cessation of hostilities" that was to begin this Friday.
In the interim before the proposed halt to the fighting, all parties had agreed to allow the delivery of humanitarian relief to 17 areas and about 500,000 people, mostly in the north and in the Damascus suburbs.
De Mistura had hoped to begin the deliveries Wednesday but the Associated Press reported at midday that the white trucks of the U.N.'s World Food Program were still parked on roadsides as the fighting continued. The U.S. has thus far ruled out airdrop deliveries of relief.
The fighting has triggered another rush of refugees to the Turkish border as Assad's forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, were in an apparent drive to cut off northern access to Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Russian airstrikes in recent days reportedly have hit hospitals and schools, killing more than 50. Tim Shenk, a spokesman for the Doctors Without Borders aid group, said the estimated death toll for an airstrike on one of the hospitals supported by the group in the north had more than doubled to 25.
World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Turkey's Anadolu news agency that "since the beginning of the conflict, almost 700 health workers have been killed and an estimated 58 percent of public hospitals and 49 percent of primary health centers are either only partially functional or have closed."
"We know the Russians and Syrian regime frankly conducted strikes in areas where those hospitals and schools were hit," Warren said from Baghdad. He also charged that the Syrians were using "barrel bombs" dropped from helicopters.
Turkey also charged that the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), which is backed by the U.S., was benefiting from the Russian airstrikes to seize territory from other opposition groups. Last year, the U.S. airdropped ammunition and other relief to the YPG, and also coordinated airstrikes with the group, in the YPG's successful efforts to break the ISIS siege of the Syrian border town of Kobane.
Turkey, which fears the creation of a Kurdish mini-state on its border, has been conducting cross-border artillery bombardments on the YPG.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey was acting in its own defense and had "no plans to stop artillery fire" on the YPG.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.